The Human Mark

A Conversation with Adam S Doyle

Adam S Doyle transcends borders through his unique brushstrokes and vision. Born in Boston in 1975, Adam earned his BFA at The Rhode Island School of Design, with a year of study in Rome, and a decade later his MFA at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. From New York to Los Angeles to Cologne to New Zealand, and as far away as Hong Kong, his work is appreciated worldwide. Besides his fine art paintings he also receives much accolade for his illustrations, which recently included book covers such as ‘The Raven Boys’ and upcoming ‘The Scorpio Races’, his portrait of Barack Obama for MoveOn.org, and a contribution to the politically charged ‘52 Shades of Greed’ deck of playing cards.

‘Why is a raven like a writing–desk?’ we find this question in ‘Alice in the Wonderland’. In your wonderland why this fascination with avian flight?

The reason for focusing on birds specifically in my current series, and why they make frequent appearances in my body of work, is half of the backstory behind everything I do. It goes something like this.

Nature is important to me, but I prefer to live in cities. Birds do a terrific job connecting it to our urban environments. They live among us. They protect us with their song. In the primal recesses of our brains we know that when birds are silent, danger is near. When they sing, all is well in the neighborhood. We feel that. In a deep way. They’re all around us, going about their day too. For the most part this is why I tend towards the smaller, familiar breeds.

They also do the thing we dream about. They fly. They experience the limitlessness of space each and every day with nothing but the mechanics of their body. As a symbol, birds speak to our hopes and aspirations. While we walk, they soar. They succinctly embody our timeless narrative of freedom. They emblazon flags, logos, shirts, and always have. Embracing the bird we gain an emotional breath of fresh air. We see ourselves escaping from hardships on every scale. They’ve got a truly universal, relatable form.

That’s my intention behind the bird imagery. Whether or not people are aware of this, they respond to them. And I’m grateful for that.

Eidolon, Painting by Adam S Doyle

You have studied in Rome where the air breathes in art and architecture and also later on you completed your masters from New York, a very urban home of modern artistic expressions. How do you compare the two very different artistic terrains and the influence they have on you?

They’re very different cities and I love them both deeply for different reasons. Artistically speaking, Rome roots you in human legacy. NYC expects you to assert yourself or you’ll get swept under the carpet.

Rome is beautiful. Period. Being there is to walk through and feel a part of history. All of Italy has this quality. But with Rome you’ve got the architecture, the markets, the enthusiasm of the people, the company of mythic statues by the greatest sculptors, the little church with Caravaggio’s paintings, the swirling Vespa–buzzing streets, the cat filled ruins, the stacatto cobblestones, I have to stop myself from going on and on. There’s plenty of reasons why it hasn’t changed in centuries. Living there provided me with a grounding in history. Not being fluent in Italian my experience of living in the city was primarily observational. Days upon days were spent recording details in my sketchbooks. Locals walking by would stop and watch me quietly with huge smiles. They have an eternal appreciation of art because it is a manifestation of the zest for life in all of its inhabitants. I realize I’m speaking romantically, but it’s fair considering we’re discussing the notion of inspiration. Creating my own projects in a place of such deep time was a real lesson not just in classical aesthetics, but a fundamental understanding of art as eternally intertwined with culture. Rome pulls you in to its Siren song.

Piazza Navona in Rome
Piazza Navona, Rome
Trastevere in Rome
Trastevere, Rome
The High Line, NYC
The High Line, NYC
Times Square, NYC
Times Square, NYC

I lived in Manhattan and then Queens up until a year and half ago. Part of me is still there and I could very well go back. As with all major cities it has its own particular energy about it. In the span of a few hours you’ll see unbridled joy and unbearable sadness, dancing on the subway, unbridled arguments, outrageous confidence, and tenderness. So while the scape of the architecture and street does make its impression upon you, it’ll take your empathy on a rollercoaster. I think the striking beauty in NYC comes from context- amidst the grit and hustle you’ll catch a delicate moment. There’s plenty of extravagance for sure. But the stuff that sticks with you will find you when you least expect it. (I actually started an ongoing photo scavenger hunt a few years ago, in part motivated by these experiences). Once you get used to the public dynamics, its the drive of everyone around you to be successful that has the most significant impact. People live there to succeed. It’s definitely an intimidating place to try to make your mark. You can’t work too hard or accomplish too much. The competitiveness and camaraderie of being an artist is all part of this too. To clear my head there are a couple of Chelsea galleries that I’ll frequent and I enjoy taking out of towners through the MET, but to be honest, it’s walks along the Highline and playful insanity of getting around by bike, or an evening of ultimate that clears the head and gets the gears in my head spinning to go back to the studio.

The application of your art forms took you to many different places very early in your artistic journey, The Puppet Showplace Theatre, Feature Film Set Designer, Feature Film Art Assistant, Children’s Book Illustration, Music/Visual Collaboration to name a few. Did you actively seek these experiences as nourishment for your inner artist? How much of an enjoyment did it bring to you to try and involve yourself in such variety of projects?

The simple answer is I love variety. In my teens and 20s particularly I was open to using my creativity for everything. I’d teach puppet making, design film sets, design characters, animation for songs, make anything people needed from me. I learned a lot in that time. A lot about craft, collaboration, and inevitably what was really most important to me. I’m still open to participating in interesting projects and applying my stuff to worthwhile prospects. But for the most part having tried my creative hands in so many forums it has led me to focus what I’ve found to be the best use of my skills, which primarily include fine art, illustration, and the occasional branding project.

Painting a series for exhibition while also working on a few books, like I’m doing now, couldn’t make me happier. They balance a brain that hungers for introspection and problems to solve. The quality of sacredness that comes with making a painting, open to whatever it needs to be, is a soul–nurturing act. There’s nothing better than when people respond to a painting. When it touches them. On the other side, illustration is a discipline about communicating an idea or narrative via a specific context. Interpreting a task in my vernacular is terrifically gratifying. It feels more like proper blue–collar work to me. Plus the reproducible forms illustration can take – a book, an album, cards, a theater poster, and many more – provide a context to share my work. A very relatable context. While the act for me of painting for a gallery or for book is two sides to the same coin. With the ubiquity of the internet the line is blurred even more.

The Intimacy of a Book
The Intimacy of a Book

Oil painting might have had an age old tradition associated with it but you have created your own layer of self expression through your unique brushstrokes. How did you conceive of and develop your own identity in this regard?

I can’t say that I at any point sat down and conceived of my artistic identity. Like our identities as human beings it comes about gradually, built upon by experiences, interests, and to a large degree, the way we’re wired. Art is a skill I’ve stuck with since childhood, acting as a means to process life and connect with others. As a kid my classmates asked me to draw on their notebooks. There’s still something to that in my motivations with the way I make my living. The quality of my work, which does have a distinctiveness to it, has come out of unified intentions. The subjects I chose, the manner in which I paint, and the themes that are part of my ongoing investigation manifest as a whole. The themes I’ve mentioned that I consider worth exploring are the human mark, our connection to the natural world, personal and cultural mythologies (which I touched upon with symbolism), and energy. There are undoubtedly threads through my work that I’m not fully conscious of as well. In the past I’ve spent time with most every kind of paint, ink, charcoal, pencil, and so on, feeling more suited to one over the other as my work developed. Oil paint has been around for hundreds of years and continues to be a medium of choice because of its vibrance and versatility. I’ve come to realize a big part of what gets me invested in making images is covering new territory. I’m quite happy with what I get out of oil paint and the manner in which my marks come to life. So I don’t expect to switch gears dramatically anytime soon. The paintings that have come to make up my artistic identity are true to what I think is a valid contribution to the cultural conversation. I do have a lot more to uncover every day when I pick up a brush.

Twilight for The Atlantic Monthly by Adam S Doyle
Twilight for The Atlantic Monthly
A Bedouin Arab by John Singer Sargent
A Bedouin Arab by John Singer Sargent

Your work is all about bringing life into an otherwise inanimate plane. Describe your sensation as your work develops in perfect synchronization with your imagination.

Earlier I talked about why I paint birds. I’ll elaborate here on the other aspects behind my work as it relates to your question.

The act of creation is one of my favorite topics. I can’t agree with your use of the word ‘perfect’, which for me only exists as a concept, but I take your meaning about the appearance of wholeness to my work. The reason for that is quite simple – over time I have established rules, rules which define the world of my work, and I play by those rules. The subjects I take on, the concepts I realize, the manner in which I paint, all adhere to the core set of intentions intertwined with the natural state of my pace. So when an image comes together it results in a visual harmony.

As regards my experience of painting, that begins with a genuine fascination with the human mark. A few strokes of paint on a canvas or a Paleolithic cave wall and we as intelligent, empathetic, ego driven visual beings have a relationship with the marks that makes them relatable. I’ve always been mesmerized by the work of great artists that are displayed in museums unfinished. By seeing the canvas beneath we’re forced to experience the before and after simultaneously. That’s magic. A fundamental trait of the way I work comes out of a devotion to this phenomenon. Every piece I do has at its core an homage to the transforming of surface into living being, and the wonder it provokes.The experience I have of painting is one of describing the form as accurately as possible and then unravelling it as it were into other dimensions. There’s definitely a dance between order and chaos. Sometimes after 8 hours of straight painting the result doesn’t work and I start over. To be satisfied with an image it needs to have its own lyricism. If I could put my finger on what that is precisely I’d be a better writer than a painter.

Lascaux Cave Art
Lascaux Cave Art

You have once worked on ‘52 Shades of Greed’. If you are asked to identify the many shades of hues that coloured your journey so far what would be the prime ones? If you have missed any shade or want a particular one to be added to your passage towards the future what would that be?

My past shades are really just tones of stubborn determination and glimpses of optimism. I’ve just stuck with a need to create images and carve out a living at it. My friends and family have always stood by me and for that I’m tremendously grateful.

Looking towards future goals… well doing something worthy of being asked to speak at TED is about as far as I can imagine right now. But in reality I’m happy with things and really only hope for more and bigger. I’m excited for this new bird series, Sing Chronos City to come together. Being able to share the whole flock of them with folks in a formal setting will feel really good. I’ve got a fun n creepy kid’s book in the works, a series of literary villains, and a few other projects I’m excited to put a bow on and let go out into the world as well. But as far as artistic endeavors goes, I’m still driven to see how far I can push the these themes I mentioned and find something new through this visual vocabulary. It might be revisiting a filed away idea or stubbing my toe on a new one tomorrow. I actually work best when I’m foraying into slightly unknown territory. There’s less conviction of what it should look like and that allows for a freedom, both from mistakes and into discovery. That’s really when I’m at my best.

Every artist wants to believe that their work matters. It will have been a worthwhile life if the paint I’m pushing around were to be enjoyed by those close to me, let alone have even the smallest affect on our cultural consciousness. So I thank you for your questions and treating my work as meaningful.

Five cards in the 52 Shades of Greed Deck, Painting by Adam S Doyle
Technopoly by Neil Postman
Technopoly by Neil Postman

A book that you would recommend others to read

We could have a whole other conversation about the books that have had the most impact on me and ones I’d recommend. I’ll keep it brief and suggest one title that’s very relevant and I don’t think is well known enough – Technopoly by Neil Postman. He’s a brilliant thinker who’s written about our relationship with tv, how we should redesign our education system, the wisdom of the 18th Century, and our relationship to technology. With his passing in 2003 we’re remiss to not have more of his input on our internet & mobile age. But his thoughts on our coexistence with technology are terrifically relevant nonetheless.

Birds of Paradise, Painting by Adam S Doyle
Portrait of Adam S Doyle

Adam S Doyle

If you’d like to keep up with all the new stuff that Adam is working on, visit his studio page on Facebook, find an array of prints for purchase at The Untapped Source, or follow the images that inspire him via Pinterest.

Find more of his work at http://www.adamsdoyle.com/

Image Courtesy: Adam S Doyle